Several weeks ago, I recounted my very favorite rock concert experience — Bruce Springsteen at the Allen Theater in Cleveland in August 1975.
Today, I revisit my very first rock concert experience: Led Zeppelin at Public Auditorium, Cleveland, October 24, 1969.
There was so much going in the popular music scene in 1969 that it’s almost overwhelming to contemplate. The high-water mark of Woodstock and the nightmare of Altamont; the Beatles’ swan song, “Abbey Road”; Motown acts the Temptations and Supremes dabbling in “psychedelic soul”; the debuts of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell; the one-off Clapton/Winwood project, Blind Faith; Bob Dylan’s countryish “Nashville Skyline”; the horns-heavy bands Chicago Transit Authority and Blood, Sweat and Tears; “Tommy” and “Let It Bleed” from the Who and the Stones; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swamp rock; “Easy Rider” and the beginning of rock music in film; and, regrettably, bubblegum pop like The Archie’s “Sugar Sugar,” which, believe it or not, was the #1 song of the year.
But perhaps the biggest story was the arrival of the British band that set the stage for the 1970s, and heavy metal, and lengthy solos, and arena-sized concerts, and larger-than-life tours, and private jets and non-stop #1 albums, and the seismic shift from buying singles to buying albums. I’m speaking, of course, of Led Zeppelin.
In early 1969, at age 13, I went to my local record store, where, amongst the usual fare of popular artists and movie soundtracks, they had a bin labeled “Progressive Rock,” a mixed bag of LPs by strange new bands that hadn’t yet earned their own bin. One album cover in particular grabbed my attention, with its graphically treated B&W photo depicting the infamous Hindenburg airship explosion. What’s this? I thought. I’m not sure why I felt intrigued enough to buy Led Zeppelin’s astonishing debut, but I did, along with the albums I had gone there to buy, Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced.”
This was revolutionary new territory for me. Only a year earlier, I had still been into The Monkees and the innocence of Top 40. But my friends’ older siblings had opened my eyes to a whole new world of the blues, and impossibly catchy guitar riffs, and virtuoso instrumental solos. I still enjoyed Simon and Garfunkel and great melodic pop, but I was totally taken with the possibilities of this brave new world. I listened to these albums incessantly. At the time, I was in a fledgling garage band called Phoenix with my friends Steve, Andy and Paul (and later Tim), and we did our best to master the chords and words to some of these hard rock/blues tracks. We even performed “Communication Breakdown,” a frenetic track from that first Zeppelin album, at a school variety show that year.
Had I not been away at summer camp, I would have probably attended Led Zep’s first Cleveland appearance in July at a tiny tented venue called Musicarnival. But no matter. I was beyond excited when WIXY 1260, the quasi-hip local radio station, capitalized on the group’s growing popularity by bringing them back to town for another show downtown at Public Hall in October.
It’s almost beyond belief that tickets were going for the whopping sum of $4 (FOUR DOLLARS!? Today, it’d be more like $400, or $4,000…). I still have one of the graphically psychedelic posters advertising the show, which actually claimed, “Bring Your Own Blankets — No Chairs on Floor.” Wow, I thought, like an indoor Woodstock experience! (Of course, the fire marshal was having none of it; word soon came down that there would indeed be rows of folding chairs as usual…) But there was something else: These were not reserved seat tickets; they were general admission (later known as “festival seating”), which means we would be free to select our seats on a “first come first served” basis.
Consequently, my friends, Steve and Andy, and I arrived at the venue several hours early to stake out a place outside the banks of entrance doors. Several thousand more concertgoers soon joined us, and it started getting claustrophobic as the restless, overeager crowd pressed in against those of us who had arrived first. Once authorities opened the doors, the mass of tightly spaced bodies surged forward, and we found ourselves in the precarious position of being carried inside with our feet hovering off the ground. It was a little hairy — Steve recalls that pepper spray was used to control the crowd, and some people panicked, but as far as I know, no one was seriously injured. (Ten years later, concertgoers at a Who concert in Cincinnati weren’t so fortunate…) Once inside, we sprinted to the front of the auditorium and were thrilled to grab chairs in about Row 15.
The evening had been made even more special because, two days earlier, the band had released the monumental “Led Zeppelin II,” now regarded as one of the best and most influential rock albums of all time. We’d had less than 48 hours to absorb it, but absorb it we did, and were totally stoked to hear this great new material alongside the fabulous first album’s nine tracks we’d thoroughly memorized.
I was so new to the rock concert experience that I wasn’t hip to the notion that there would be a warm-up band performing before the headliner. My reaction? Wow, cool, a bonus act. Bring ’em on. “Please welcome, from Flint, Michigan, Grand Funk Railroad!”
Never heard of them, of course, but holy smokes. This new power trio, featuring 21-year-old Mark Farner on guitar and vocals, came on and provided a 45-minute set of explosive blues rock that had me picking my jaw up off the floor. When the lights came up for intermission, I looked at my friends, dumbfounded, and thought, “I think I’ll be coming to A LOT more of these concerts…”
And then, half an hour later, there they were. Led Zeppelin, in the flesh. They grabbed us by the throat from the get-go with a medley of the incendiary “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communications Breakdown” before sliding into the delectable slow blues of “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Although guitar virtuoso Jimmy Page was the true leader and visionary of the band, on stage it was vocalist Robert Plant who mesmerized the audience with his spine-tingling howls and occasional subtler shadings. His long, curly golden mane seemed to orbit around him as he dipped and swirled, belting out vocal lines like no one had ever seen or heard before, least of all me.
Page certainly had many, many spotlight moments as well — lightning-fast solos on “Heartbreaker,” aching blues passages on “You Shook Me,” an acoustic guitar workout on “White Summer/Black Mountain Side,” and especially when he picked up a violin bow to caress his Gibson Les Paul on 15-minute epics like “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times.”
Drummer John Bonham, who proved to be so important to Zeppelin’s sound that the group chose to disband rather than continue without him when he died in 1980, showed his considerable skills while testing the audience’s patience with a 10-minute drum solo on his signature piece, “Moby Dick.” And bassist John Paul Jones did what most bass players do — he stood stoically to one side and provided the all-important bottom that anchors every hard rock band’s groove.
I soaked it all up like a sponge, utterly fascinated by the dynamics of a hot band playing on all cylinders, live in concert before my eyes. I don’t recall anything at all remarkable about the light show beyond a rudimentary use of spots and maybe some occasional switching of colors. With their stacks of Marshall amps and speakers, Led Zep (and Grand Funk) were certainly plenty loud, but again, I don’t remember it being past the pain threshold like it was at many shows I attended years later. But in almost every regard, the concert was a real revelation, and I knew I’d found something new and exciting to be passionate about.
As the concert was wrapping up with an encore, my friends and I elbowed our way up front, leaning on the very lip of the stage as the band offered the bluesy tour-de-force “The Lemon Song,” with its double-entendre lyric, “Squeeze me babe, ’til the juice runs down my leg…” Steve recalled that I had a battered pack of Marlboros in my pocket that I tossed up on stage, and Page leaned down, grabbed one and lit it. My little contribution to the evening’s festivities…
Steve and I have differing memories of how we got home that night. He remembers we caught the last train back to the suburbs, then walked home from the station at one in the morning. I recall my dad picked us up, completely speechless by what he’d seen when he poked his head in the back of the auditorium to see and hear what all the fuss was about. I’m not sure it matters which is accurate. They’re both great stories.
I suppose I should mention that, although there were no doubt plenty of stoned enthusiasts in the crowd, I was not one of them (not yet, anyway). My exposure to that part of the counterculture didn’t occur for a few more years. But the link between hard rock and drugs was already substantial by that point…
“Led Zep I” was recently re-released in pristine remastered form, with a second bonus CD of a concert in Paris recorded exactly two weeks before the Cleveland show. It appears to be pretty close to the set list we heard, with a couple exceptions, so if you listen to that, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what this impressionable 14-year-old was exposed to that Friday night more than 45 years ago.